Henry Haight graduated at Yale with the class of 1844 and two years later went with his father, who was a lawyer of some eminence, to St. Louis, where he was admitted to the bar.
Like so many other Americans in Missouri, Henry Haight left to seek his fortune in California, arriving in San Francisco on January 20, 1850. The gold fever was still carrying thousands to the mines, but Haight took up his residence in San Francisco and entered upon the practice of law, remaining thus occupied until 1867. For a time his partner was James A. McDougall. Later he was joined by his father, Fletcher Haight, who in 1857 and 1859 was an unsuccessful aspirant for the Republican nomination for justice of the state supreme court, and who in 1861 was appointed by President Lincoln United States district judge for the southern district of California.
In 1859 Haight was chairman of the Republican state committee. In 1860 he supported Lincoln but by 1864 he was opposed to the administration and gave his support to the Democratic nominee. Then and later his recurring conviction of the importance of constitutional procedure caused him to shift positions, which gave him with many a reputation for inconsistency, but which to his closer acquaintances evinced “not obliquity, but indecision”.
In 1867 Haight was the candidate of the Democratic party for governor and was elected at the close of an exciting and vigorous campaign. Apparently he devoted much of his thought to national affairs. He opposed the continuance of Chinese immigration, favored an eight-hour day, and violently attacked proposals for negro suffrage. Later he advocated free trade, a specie currency, the exclusive right of each state to regulate its domestic concerns, and opposed all proposals to weaken the Constitution.
In transmitting the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the California state legislature he declared that it would fail of success and that a “military oligarchy” would not long control the “people of remote states. ” Among the important acts of the period of his governorship was that establishing the University of California, and after his retirement he served as a member of the board of regents.
In 1868 Haight was supported in California as a proper candidate for the presidency and three years later, against his wishes, he was renominated for governor. Again he made his appeal on national grounds, stressing Democratic doctrine, but he was defeated. He resumed the practice of law and in 1878 was elected a delegate to the convention called to revise the state constitution. He did not, however, take his place. On September 2, 1878, he was taken suddenly ill at his office and died in San Francisco on the same day.
In Missouri both father and son had been interested in the Free-Soil movement, but in California Henry affiliated with the Democratic party, in an inconspicuous way, in the campaign of 1852. Later he transferred his interest to the Republican party as it came into existence in California, but in 1867 he came back to Democrats again.
A man of good education, decided views, and given to wise and patient counsel, Haight's abiding reputation rested upon his career as a lawyer rather than as governor. Horatio Stebbins said of Haight: “The extraordinary thing in him was that there was nothing extraordinary, but a quite symmetrical combination of the usual faculties of men. ”
Haight's wife was Anna (Bissell) Haight, whom he married in St. Louis in January 1855.